Flavor to Savor
BY Lindsay Kastner
Whipping up gourmet meals at home begins with a well-stocked larder.
The right basics and a few specialty items can help home cooks elevate everyday fare and turn out memorable special-occasion meals.
Fancy finishing salt won’t make a top chef out of those whose kitchen skills start and end at boxed mac and cheese. But a few quality staple ingredients can make cooking more flavorful and enjoyable.
Three area experts offer suggestions on how to put together the perfect pantry: Kristin Williams in-store chef at Vom Fass Wilmington Susan Boyles general manager at The Seasoned Gourmet and Kymberlei DiNapoli owner of Taste The Olive.
Extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar are DiNapoli’s top choices for pantry essentials.
“I don’t think anybody anywhere would say anything different ” DiNapoli says.
Williams agrees that olive oil is the starting point.
“The first thing I would recommend is a decent-sized bottle of really great quality extra virgin olive oil ” Williams says. “You can make salad dressings. You can roast vegetables. You can pan fry things. It’s kind of like a launching point.”
Boyles says cold pressed oils including nut and seed oils like almond avocado peanut and palm are the healthiest options and offer the best flavor. She recommends pecan oil for its neutral flavor and high heat tolerance.
Vinegar is another important staple. Every larder should include the basic white apple cider and red wine vinegars plus either something classic like balsamic or fruity like blueberry or strawberry vinegar.
Boyles favors sherry vinegar which she says is among the more subtle options.
“It’s so rich and caramelly ” she says.
Oils and vinegars should be stored away from light and heat in a pantry as opposed to next to the stovetop. If stored properly oils will keep for up to one year. Vinegars can last even longer.
“They kind of keep aging just like fine wines ” Williams says.
Verjus — the juice of unripe grapes — shares some of the same bright qualities as vinegar but is significantly less sharp. It can be used to liven up sauces dressings and soups or as a non-alcoholic alternative to wine when deglazing a pan.
Together oil and vinegar form the basis of homemade vinaigrette. The basic proportions are one part acid (the vinegar) to two or three parts oil.
Stock garlic to crush and combine with basic herbs or other seasonings for customized salad dressing. An emulsifier such as mustard or honey helps bind the oil and vinegar and round out flavors.
Boyles uses honey in many preparations whenever she wants to tone down a dish with too much acid or tartness.
“A little bit of honey can take that tartness away without adding too much sweetness ” she says.
DiNapoli recommends keeping dried pasta dried beans and some broth or stock on hand for the building blocks to a simple meal.
To perk up those staple items DiNapoli likes flavorful and versatile ingredients like dried mushrooms canned artichoke hearts and jarred roasted red peppers as well as an array of herbs and spices.
“One of my personal favorites is ground cardamom ” she says. “Cardamom is such an interesting spice because you can use it obviously in sweet dishes but it’s such a good thing to use in savory dishes too. It’s just an unexpected flavor component.”
It sounds obvious but Boyles says a proper pantry also needs the right salt and pepper. She keeps two types of sea salt on hand: a coarsely ground gray called sel gris for cooking; and a finely ground refined white salt that she prefers to use when seasoning a finished dish.
“The gray salt tends to be more pungently salty because of the minerals that are still in it ” she says.
Another quality sea salt product is Herbamare a French blend infused with certified organic fresh herbs and vegetables. The salt is also kosher. Boyles also recommends buying whole black peppercorns to grind just before using. White pepper lends flavor to cream soups and sauces.
The experts advise that fresh herbs like basil mint rosemary oregano and thyme are essential additions to every kitchen. Replace dried herbs and ground spices every six months or whenever their aroma fades.
Boyles suggests a dried herb blend such as the lavender-laced herbs de Provence or fines herbes which foregoes the lavender in favor of parsley chives French chervil and French tarragon.
To add a little heat stock red pepper along with dried chili powder such as the mild Piment d’Espelette the fruity and moderately hot aj? amarillo or the fiery habanero.
A tip here: habanero is easier to finely chop when frozen. Store one whole in the freezer cut a desired portion and return the pepper to the freezer quickly.
DiNapoli says she especially likes citrusy spice blends for use on seafood poultry and pork.
Hot sauces like sriracha are another way to add flavor to dishes while nuts and seeds contribute texture and crunch.
“I think a lot of time people are a little afraid of messing with different spicy things ” DiNapoli says. “You can put a very small amount but just having that little kick of flavor in there really can help carry and boost the other flavors to another level.”
Keeping spices and seasoning blends on hand makes it easy to perk up pasta rice and other grains which form the basis of many quick-fix meals.
“If you’re in the South you have to have grits ” Boyles says. “And stone-ground grits are the way to go.”
She prefers the grits from Old School Mill a stone mill based in Albemarle.
For baking she suggests keeping on hand good-quality cocoa powder flour sugar baking powder baking soda and real vanilla extract. A natural alternative to white sugar is coconut nectar. New lines of gluten-free rice or garbanzo flours are alternatives to standard white and wheat.
Keep on hand vegetable shortening salted and unsalted butters limes and lemons. Butters can last indefinitely in the freezer.
Condiments like mayonnaise ketchup chutneys and jams can be purchased or homemade.
When it comes to ketchup Williams concedes “I’m a Heinz girl myself.” But she loves making other types of sauces salsas and spreads that function as an extension of the pantry.
“It’s kind of like putting inspiration away ” she says. “You can go grab it at any time.”
Boyles sells little in the way of prepared condiments preferring to teach customers how to make their own. She does however admit to a preference for Duke’s mayonnaise.
Besides cooking classes and cookbooks online searches and content sharing sites such as Pinterest offer up ideas and inspiration to use the ingredients in a well-stocked pantry.
For cooks who want to branch out Boyles suggests drizzling musky truffle oil over finished dishes especially potatoes. White truffle oil has a subtle delicate flavor while black truffle oil is more pungent and earthy.
Boyles also likes Cubeb pepper sometimes called tailed pepper because of its attached stem.
“This one has a lemony cardamom-y flavor ” she says. “It’s kind of fun.”
She also recommends grains of paradise a peppery seed with “a kind of herbaceous quality ” though she cautions the grains are too small for most pepper grinders and will need to be crushed with a mortar and pestle instead.
An unexpected spice blend can give dishes a little international flair.
“Instead of putting Mrs. Dash all over it how about Ras El Hanout or something like that that’s different but really easy to use ” Williams says referring to the North African blend of warm spices like cardamom cinnamon and cloves.
Boyles likes the nutty Egyptian blend called dukkah which she recommends using as a table condiment.
“It’s like a high-protein all-natural flavor boost ” she says.
For impromptu entertaining DiNapoli suggests stashing a few jars of prepared tapenade and some artisan pickled vegetables.
“Pickled anything has been an upcoming hot trend ” DiNapoli said noting that she likes pickled veggies in everything.
Gourmet Pantry Shopping List
roasted red peppers
extra virgin olive
blueberry or strawberry
Spices and Seasonings
sel gris (grey salt)
fine white salt
whole black peppercorns and pepper grinder
herbs de Provence
grains of paradise
ras el hanout
real vanilla extract
broth or stock